We’re driving down VT-103 in Jim’s two-door coupe. He’s got the heat blasting, so I crack the window. Snow still covers the ground, but it’s starting to recede. That doesn’t mean winter’s going to be gone anytime soon, though.

Jim looks out the driver-side window, takes in the endless stretch of empty pasture. He pulls his shirt over his nose. “They’re spreading that fucking liquid shit again.”

“It’s too early for that,” I say. “That’s just plain old, unprocessed cow shit.” I roll down my window a little more and nose the air. “You’ve lived here your entire life. How are you not used to that smell?”

“Look, you give me a dead skunk at thirty or forty yards. Yeah, it reminds me of smoking dope at the sand pits back in high school. But cow shit? Fuck that.”

I breathe in again. “I kind of like it, when it’s not too strong.”

Jim continues driving with one hand, holding his shirt up. “You would, man. You would.”

We pull off on 131, heading toward Weathersfield.

“Why are you turning here?” I ask.

Jim looks at me. “Dirty thirty!”

“What?”

“Your birthday’s right around the corner. We’re going to loosen up tonight before the big sales rush tomorrow.”

“I need to get checked in. I need a shower.”

“Come on. The whole team is going to be there.”

“Seriously?” I can’t fucking believe this.

“Might as well start off on the right foot. If I make three sales, that’ll be enough to go on a week-long bender. There’s at least one bar in walking distance.”

So much for twelve steps. “Jesus.”

“You have something better planned?”

“I want to check out that analog tower they have up there.”

“Hm he hmm hmm he analog he hmm,” Jim mocks. “Fucking radio tower.” He pulls into the driveway of an old strip of buildings. “We’re middle-aged. We sell knives, or we’d try to if online retailers weren’t soaking up our shtick. We’ve got nothing better to do on a work night. You can check out the radio tower later. I’ll go with you. For now, come on.”

He leads me up to the door and pushes me through the threshold.

“Surprise!”

Jim’s right. Everybody’s here, in this little watering hole that’s part of the world’s shittiest mini-mall. It’s the most unsightly construction I’ve ever seen. White vinyl siding straddling a log cabin ice cream shack straddling a dilapidated bar, aptly titled “The Dance Hole.” Bathrooms? There are no fucking bathrooms. Porta-potties are in the back.

Tom’s the first one to greet me. “We got you, you fucker!”

“You got me, Tom.”

He gets up in my face, drops the smile. “But seriously, don’t fuck with Lana. I’ve been working her for weeks. Tonight’s the night.” He winks at me.

I nod dismissively.

Jim gently pushes me toward our boss, Lana. She’s standing at the bar ordering something, a beer as black as a starless night. It smells like shit and coffee. She puts it to her lips and downs half of it. There’s a brown cream residue on her mustache that she wipes away with her fist. I turn to Jim. He makes a face like he just dropped a tablespoon of cinnamon in his mouth.

Lana misses all of this.

“Happy birthday, Rey,” she says, taking another drink.

“Happy birthday,” I say. “Thanks, I mean.”

She takes another drink. “How do you think we’ll do?”

“My social skills are just about nil, so …”

“So out here, you’ll do fine. You’re a product of the backwoods, right?”

“I suppose.”

“You’ll do fine.” Lana sets her beer down, snaps her fingers for another round. “And if you don’t, remember. Even if sales are down, we’re state-funded. They’re not going to shut down their precious outpatient operation when it’s about to go national.”

“They might if they find out we’re here.”

“Why? You’re in for opiates, not alcohol, right?”

I wipe away the beads of water gathering at the base of my glass. “Yeah.”

“You don’t talk much about life before ’hab. I’ve seen the police blotters, but it’d be nice to hear your side of the story someday.”

“I’d rather just forget about it.”

“You have to come clean to get clean, Rey.”

I lift the beer to my lips. It tastes like crushed Tylenol, like something I’d cut blow with. “As long as I’m here, I’m clean. But my sales suck.”

Lana puts her hand on my forearm, strokes my flannel gently. “Sales are irrelevant. The company’s getting state aid for every one of you guys, so don’t sweat it. In the meantime, open up a bit. You’re stuck with us for a while. Might as well make it worth it.” She waits for the bartender to pour her another glass and walks away.

I’m left wondering if there’s any subtext to take away from my conversation with Lana. I want there to be. I want her eyes to tell me something her words don’t. But even if they did, I couldn’t read them. Thousands of signals have passed me by in my life, all blotted out fix by fix.

I tune out the self-loathing static and try to find Jim. I want to go, but he’s hitting on one of the local girls. She has an aged beauty, with smoky eyes. Not the good smoky. The sultry-meth-look-in-the-Walmart-parking-lot smoky. He’ll still nail her. God knows how he manages to lure them in. Somehow his vacant stare and feigned expertise in the new hobby he picks up and drops every other week does the trick.

The bartender is staring me down. I throw a five down on the bar. “Beer, something light.”

“On tap or in a bottle?”

“I’ll take a bottle, thanks.”

He glares at me as he pops the top and slides the beer in my direction.

I lift the bottle to my lips. It smells like skunk, and I’m taken back to the sand pits in high school.

Jim is slow dancing with the local woman while Tom chats up Lana.

I turn to the bartender to make small talk and he walks away.

Happy birthday to me.